Monday 14 August 2023

Musings on Jane Austen—a personal blog post

1/ It’s strange how these things work. There are writers with whom it was love at first sight (Tolstoy, Melville). There are writers I came to like over time (Jane Austen). There are writers I had to rediscover (Shakespeare, Chekhov). And sometimes a writer comes to mean a lot more to me at a particular stage of my life, like Chekhov at the moment, whilst I’m having a difficult time. As I move closer to Chekhov, it so happens that I move further away from Jane Austen. It’s not because I think less highly of her, but the themes of balance, misperception, and appearance vs reality now mean less to me; whereas the subjects that now occupy me didn’t seem to interest Austen: death, grief, loneliness, longing, sex, sexual desire, unhappiness, fleetingness of love, search for meaning, and so on. 

2/ I’ve never got out of my head Nabokov’s remark in his lecture about Mansfield Park

“Nobody in Mansfield Park dies in the arms of the author and reader, as people do in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy. The deaths in Mansfield Park happen somewhere behind the scenes and excite little emotion. These dull deaths have, however, a curiously strong influence on the development of plot.”

This is true for all of Jane Austen’s novels: deaths happen off-stage, and they’re often, if not always, functional (in Nabokov’s words: “affect the development of the novel and are introduced for structural purposes, purposes of development”). 

3/ I reread Pride and Prejudice several months ago. I have always had a complicated relationship with it: I like it a lot, but it’s too light, bright, and sparkling, too much like a woman’s fantasy. Mr Darcy might exist, but you’re not going to meet him. 

(I myself prefer Mr Knightley). 

4/ It probably says something about me that my favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park, her darkest, most sombre novel.

Like her other novels, it has a happy ending, but she gives us a vision, a glimpse of something else that might have happened: Fanny Price back in Portsmouth, poor, alienated, unhappy, forever unable to get out; or married to Henry Crawford, betrayed, humiliated, and miserable.

These visions are gloomier than what her other heroines might have experienced if they hadn’t got a happy ending.


  1. Is sexual desire absent from Jane Austen? People aren't boning each other left right & centre a la Garcia Marquez or Kundera, but they are trying pretty hard to get married, & we can probably guess what they're hoping for after that. There are also lonely characters: all those pitied old spinters that decent people go out of their way to make feel included.

    1. Not absent as such. There's a moment in Persuasion that Howard Jacobson picked as one of the most erotic moments in literature, if I remember correctly.
      But Jane Austen doesn't really write about it. If she hints at it, it's usually not good, like Lydia Bennet's desire for George Wickham and other soldiers, or Henry Crawford's desire for Maria and Julia Bertram.

    2. Don't get me wrong, if I want an exploration of sexual desire I am not turning to Jane Austen first. But it is, surely, the bedrock of all her plots. Assumed though, rather than explored, you are right.

      I'm quite keen on explorations of sexual desire that leads people into trouble. It's led me into trouble enough times and the 2 people who have caused me the most pain and damage in my life - apart from my parents, obviously - are the 2 people I desired the most, or at least, thought I did at the time. Who do you think has dealt with "bad" sexual desire well? Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, Zola in Nana, and Patrick Hamilton in Hangover Square have all done it pretty well, I reckon, Hamilton the unrequited kind, Tolstoy the romantic, Zola the raw lustful kind. People don't write as much about that I don't think - the raw kind - because it seems too crude and shallow to say anything much about, but Zola brings out quite well I think how it can consume people.

  2. Good question, I have to think more about that.
    Personally I think Chekhov understood female sexuality better than Tolstoy did, and part of it is because Tolstoy judged women for liking sex. Tolstoy's depiction of Anna Karenina is one of the greatest depictions of a female character in fiction, but Hélène is the one flaw in War and Peace, the only character he clearly hates and cannot understand (after Napoleon). I noticed it when I reread the book last year. Tolstoy could get into the head of Anatole and depict it from inside, but couldn't do so with Hélène because he hated and despised her. But what's the difference between Hélène and Anatole? They both are immoral, debauched, selfish, unprincipled.
    Personally I feel closer to Chekhov - Tolstoy has an unhealthy relationship with sex, his view of sex is, I think, rather fucked up.

    1. His view of sex is totally fucked up. He takes his disapproval of sex per se to its ultimate nihilistic, or at least misanthropic conclusion, in "The Kreutzer Sonata" if I remember correctly, where he seems to end up agreeing with his character that it would be better for the human race to die out than for anybody to have sex ever again. But it's one of those weird instances with Tolstoy where he's a far greater and more generous artist than he wants to be, because while he as the author clearly endorses the character's deranged viewpoint as described, the reader can see, thanks to the way Tolstoy delineates the character's viewpoint as a response to events in his life, how those events have driven him into a dead end. Or, I've just read the whole thing wrong.

      At the risk of being glib, I think Tolstoy despaired of human beings, Chekhov of his own society, and I'm inclined to agree with you Chekhov was the more sane.

    2. "it would be better for the human race to die out than for anybody to have sex ever again"=> I actually don't remember that.
      Tolstoy did agree with his character about many things, but I think he was scrutinising himself and pushed his own views to extremes, and ended up creating a jealous murderer, which he himself wasn't.

    3. “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a deeply troubling work, but, although Tolstoy gives Pozdnyshev his own views on women and on sex - and these views, I agree, are strange, to put it mildly - Pozdnyshev is quite clearly not Tolstoy himself, for the obvious reason that Tolstoy wasn’t a murderer. And yet, he gives a vile murderer his own views and values: it’s very odd.

      Ibsen once said that to write is to sit in judgement on oneself, and I can’t help feeling that, on some level, conscious or unconscious, this is precisely what Tolstoy was doing. He gave this character his own values, his own opinions, and pursued it all to its horrible conclusion. In short, he was not so much propagating his ideas, but critiquing them. This may not have been conscious, but quite often, when Tolstoy the questionable polemicist sat down to write, Tolstoy the supreme artist tended to take over. Tolstoy noted this himself: a novel in which he set to depict the evils of adultery ended up being something quite different.

      It remains a very troubling work, and that surely is intentional. But I can only see this as Tolstoy, consciously or unconsciously, sitting in judgement over himself.

    4. I think what troubles me about The Kreutzer Sonata is not really Pozdnyshev, as that's an excellent depiction of a jealous man losing his mind, but the fact that it has a frame story and that narrator is also a misogynist.
      And then, of course, Tolstoy's Afterword or whatever he called it.

  3. Very sound points, & that "negative capability" by which he consciously or otherwise exposes the limitations of his own ideas through stories is one of the things that makes Tolstoy so good.

    It's the Afterword I was thinking of, where Tolstoy does seem to end up saying it would be better for the human race to die out than for it to continue having sex, as though this is the conclusion the reader should draw from Pozdnyshev's story. But the way he tells the story, that is not the conclusion any normal reader would draw. That's what I was trying to say. But it wouldn't surprise me if i'd completely misremebered the bloody Afterword too.

    1. Haha I erased the Afterword from my mind as much as I could, so can't say.


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